Pittsburgh school board sees likely savings from closings

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No one knows yet whether the new Pittsburgh Public Schools board will decide to close more schools.

The board is, however, looking for ways to save more money.

The district forecasts it will run out of money, this week revised to 2017 when the operating deficit is expected to reach $57.3 million.

The district estimated it could save $3 million to $5 million a year through five to 10 unnamed school closings, consolidations and reconfigurations in fall 2015. That estimate came in the "Whole Child, Whole Community: Building a Bridge to the Pittsburgh Promise" report released in December.

When the report came out, Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border already was under consideration for closing in fall 2014, with the students expected to go to Arsenal PreK-5 half a mile away.

A new school board in December stopped the process, saving Woolslair for at least another year.

But Woolslair still provides a case study in how much money closing a school might save.

The district's consultants estimated $650,000 to $950,000 a year could be saved by closing the school, which was built in 1897 and has the district's smallest enrollment, 110 students.

The Woolslair community isn't taking the school's future for granted. It is using the extra time to try to develop ways to attract families to the school.

On Thursday, a "We Love Woolslair" family fun night will host families of both current and prospective students. A proposal for special programming to attract more students this fall also is in the works.

Valerie Allman, a Troy Hill mother of two Woolslair students and originator of the "Save Woolslair" Facebook page, said, "We're off the chopping block for now. I can almost guarantee you we will be back on the chopping block in a few months if we don't boost enrollment and don't meet the district's goals."

The district gives this explanation of how it calculated the annual operational savings, including salary and benefits, if Woolslair were to be closed:

• Teachers -- Up to four fewer teachers would be needed, saving $230,000 to $340,000.

• Administration -- Cuts of up to 3.7 full-time equivalent employees -- including one principal, one counselor, one secretary, a half-time student data systems analyst and a one-day-a-week librarian -- would save $260,000 to $380,000.

• Custodial staff -- Up to two fewer custodians would be needed, saving $110,000 to $160,000.

• Utilities -- These would cost about half as much if the building were closed, saving $10,000 to $20,000 a year.

• Transportation -- About three dozen Woolslair students take the bus at slightly less than $3,000 per student. An additional 17 to 28 students would need to be bused if they were reassigned to Arsenal, but more efficient routing would reduce the cost to about $1,000 per student, saving $30,000 to $50,000 a year.

The teacher contract requires layoffs to be by certification and systemwide seniority, so it is most likely that the lower-paid teachers in the system would be laid off, not necessarily those now at Woolslair.

One of the reasons Woolslair is so expensive to operate -- district officials say it costs twice as much as comparable elementary schools -- is the district provides one day a week each for music, art and library teachers despite the school's small size as a way to offer educational equity across schools.

Savings usually are counted just in the first year, but they continue year after year if the schools or staff are not replaced.

Beyond the operational savings, there are other potential savings and costs.

Superintendent Linda Lane has noted that school closings would save capital costs because the district wouldn't have so many major items to fix.

The district's current capital budget does not list any capital improvements through 2020 at Woolslair, for which the last major renovation was 1997.

However, the 2013 capital budget recommended $1.78 million be spent at Woolslair in 2017 to paint and replace plaster walls and ceilings, with $213,600 in architectural/engineering costs in 2016 at Woolslair. It also called for spending $250,000 on a new roof in 2019. If those costs could be avoided, that would save $2.2 million.

There is at least one wild card in how much school closings save: charter schools.

The state requires the district to pay $12,871 a year for each regular student and $27,924 for one in special education.

Pittsburgh has seen some students from areas where schools were closed head to charter schools, including Propel Northside and Propel Montour. Propel Hazelwood plans to open this fall, eight years after Pittsburgh closed the Burgwin elementary school there.

However, when Pittsburgh closed seven schools in fall 2012, 99.3 percent of the students from the previous year still returned to district schools, not counting graduating seniors, said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh

There are also other undetermined costs.

Ms. Lane has pledged to make improvements at Arsenal, at least in part to encourage Woolslair students to transfer there.

Arsenal is a lower-achieving school, with an academic score of 55.2 -- compared to 60 at Woolslair -- on the state School Performance Profiles.

In addition, there are costs that don't carry a price tag, such as the effect on students and staff as they face changes and the impact on a neighborhood of closed and vacant school buildings.

Pittsburgh has gone through a number of rounds of school closings. The district now has 54 schools compared to 91 about a decade ago.

In 2006 under Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, 22 schools were closed in a "right-sizing" plan estimated to have had a net savings of $10.3 million in the first full calendar year, which amounts to $468,181 per school.

The right-sizing closings were intended to reduce excess capacity -- which compares enrollment with "functional" capacity -- from 31 percent to 22 percent.

But even though seven more schools closed under Ms. Lane in fall 2012, excess capacity now hovers around 35 percent.

Enrollment has continued to decline, from 32,506 in fall 2005 to 24,525 in fall 2013.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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